The coalition government led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has come under fire from the opposition, which is accused it of lacking a strong commitment to pursue military reform following a slight hike in the defense budget for fiscal year 2024.
Defense Minister Sutin Klungsang told Parliament during the three-day debate on the budget bill earlier this month that he had not given up on the mission to modernize and downsize the armed forces and pledged to achieve it by all means.
“I’m not in this position to compromise with or please the military, but I need more time and an effective tactic to do so,” he said.
The opposition Move Forward Party lashed out at the government’s defense budget, saying it was incapable of making any change in the military.
“With such a budget arrangement, I wonder whether the armed forces would be able to reshape themselves,” the party’s MP, Akkarat Udomamnuay, said.
Under the first civilian minister in a decade, the Defense Ministry proposed a budget of 198.3 billion baht for the military for fiscal 2024, up 2 per cent from 194.4 billion baht allocated by the military-backed government under General Prayut Chan-o-cha last year.
Defense budget hike amid economic crisis?
The armed forces identified four missions to justify the budget: to protect and glorify the monarchy, defend the country, maintain internal security, and promote cooperation with international allies and partners.
Unless Parliament imposes cuts, the army will get 95.9 billion baht, the navy 41 billion baht, the air force 36.4 billion, the Supreme Command 14.7 billion baht, while the Office of permanent secretary of the Defense Ministry will receive 9.2 billion baht. The Defense Technology Institute would get only 850 million baht for research and development of weapons and innovations.
The hike in the military budget could not be justified as the Thai economy is in decline, if not in a crisis, Move Forward Party deputy leader Sirikanya Tansakun argued.
While the defense budget was slashed during every economic crisis in the past, Prime Minister Srettha had hiked the military budget by 2 per cent during times that he has himself dubbed as an economic crisis, she said.
The defense budget was slashed by 21 per cent during the Asian financial crisis in 1997-1998, by 10 per cent during the sub-prime crisis in 2008, and by 5 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sirikanya said.
While declaring his policies to Parliament last September, Srettha had said that his government planned to reduce the number of senior military officers holding the rank of general in the services as well as adjust the number of personnel in the Internal Security Operations Command.
However, the 2024 budget bill, which is now in the second reading in Parliament, failed to reflect any reduction plan.
The Defense Ministry has allocated 127.3 billion baht, up from Bt120.8 billion last year, for allowances to troops and personnel in the defense services.
The budget plan indicated that the government would likely expand the armed forces, rather than downsize, opposition MP Akkarat accused.
“The Defense Ministry has contradicted the government’s policy announced earlier to Parliament,” the MP said.
Defense Minister Sutin admitted that the budget for allowances remained high but argued that he could not simply lay off the troops from service. “Only three months in the office, I cannot fire anybody. It’s too sensitive for their morale,” he said and revealed that he had a plan to dissolve or merge some military units as well as eliminate some inactive positions soon.
Sutin, however, offered confused information about the plan and the number of military officers holding the rank of general.
He told Parliament that his government was continuing the plan to reduce the number of generals in service from 700 to 320 by 2027.
Ministry spokesperson Jirayu Houngsub, however, gave media different figures, saying that the ministry aimed to cut the number of generals from 2,000 to fewer than 300 by 2027.
The number of generals in the armed forces has always been a secret.
The House of Representatives Committee of Military Affairs has failed in several attempts to find out the exact number of personnel in the defense services, according to an official at the House.
There could be as many as 2,000 military officers of all-star general rank with only 700 of them working in both active and inactive positions, meaning most Thai generals have no job to do, the official said.
Jirayu said the ministry would enforce the plan to reduce the number of officers in fiscal years 2025-2027 and needed at least a 600-million-baht budget for retirement packages.
The scheme would also cover officers holding the rank of colonel, offering incentives for at least 570 colonels to accept an early retirement package, he said.
Submarine still in troubled waters
Sutin said the government had not arranged a budget for the submarine project as it was still hanging in the balance.
The government has not decided yet on whether to procure a Yuan Class S26T submarine with a Chinese engine or swap it for a frigate.
The Thai navy announced a plan to procure three attack submarines in 2015 when Thailand was run by a military regime under Prayut.
The Bt13.9-billion contract to purchase the 2,550-ton, 77.7-meter-long S26T submarines signed in May 2017 expired at the end of December last year, but the manufacturer — China Shipbuilding & Offshore International Co Ltd — has failed to deliver the warship due to engine problems.
The Chinese sub-maker failed to procure the German MTU 396 engine for the submarine, as stated in the agreement, due to EU sale restrictions.
Last year, the Navy asked the Office of the Attorney-General for legal advice on whether it would be able to amend or scrap the contract and demand compensation for losses.
Sutin said the office did not offer any clear-cut legal options and he would place the matter before the Cabinet before making any decision.
The government badly needs to balance the navy’s hardware requirements, maintain good relations with China as well as the risk of legal consequences, Sutin said. “I don’t want to take any risk of legal consequences for myself,” Sutin told reporters.
The government has allocated a budget for the construction of facilities for the submarine such as its port in Sattahip. These facilities can be utilized for commercial purposes, Sutin said.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk